Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page

1. Introduction

1.1 The need for and benefits of an ecosystem approach to fisheries

The term ecosystem approach to fisheries (EAF) has been adopted in these guidelines to reflect the merging of two different but related and - it is hoped - converging paradigms. The first is that of ecosystem management, which aims to meet its goal of conserving the structure, diversity and functioning of ecosystems through management actions that focus on the biophysical components of ecosystems (e.g. introduction of protected areas). The second is that of fisheries management, which aims to meet the goals of satisfying societal and human needs for food and economic benefits through management actions that focus on the fishing activity and the target resource.

Up until recently, these two paradigms have tended to diverge into two different perspectives, but the concept of sustainable development[1] requires them to converge towards a more holistic approach that balances both human well-being and ecological well-being. EAF is, in effect, a way to implement sustainable development in a fisheries context. It builds on current fisheries management practices and more explicitly recognizes the interdependence between human well-being and ecosystem well-being. EAF emphasizes the need to maintain or improve ecosystem health and productivity to maintain or increase fisheries production for both present and future generations. Of special relevance to these guidelines is the recognition that, in contributing to a convergence of the two paradigms, EAF will be assisting in implementing many of the provisions contained in the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries.

Fishing activities normally target one or several species, known to provide food for consumers and income/livelihood to the fishers. During the past 50 years at least, the dominant fisheries management paradigm has been to maintain the target resource base through various controls on the size and operations of the fishing activity. In these guidelines, we will adopt the term “target resources-oriented management” (TROM) for this paradigm, recognizing that it has been adopted mainly for medium- to large-scale commercial fisheries. In most developing countries (with notable exceptions) and in many developed ones, the activities of the small-scale, multi-species fisheries are undertaken with little intervention beyond development support, or are based on more traditional management systems. The term “current fishery management practices” refers to this global situation, in which TROM is a part.

The depleted state of many of the world’s fisheries and the degraded nature of many marine ecosystems have been well documented. Because fisheries have not been managed in a way that contributes positively to sustainable development, the impact on the world’s economies and societies will be enormous both now, and probably even more importantly, well into the future. This situation will inevitably contribute to increased poverty, increased inequities and lack of opportunities for many of the world’s fishers to make a decent livelihood. Poor management is depriving many regions and states of the potential social and economic benefits of fishing (currently estimated to employ 12.5 million people with about US$40 billion per annum in international trade). Approximately 80–90 million people, most of them in developing countries, depend on fish for their main daily source of protein. The need to reduce the alarming trend of depletion and degradation has been recognized in many international fora, most recently at the World Summit for Sustainable Development (Johannesburg, 2002), which pledged to:

maintain or restore stocks to levels that can produce the maximum sustainable yield with the aim of achieving these goals for depleted stocks on an urgent basis and where possible not later than 2015.[2]

There is obviously a need to improve the approach used in fisheries management so that potential social and economic benefits can be achieved. Conflicts between competing users must be reduced, and fisheries must be accepted by society as responsible users of the marine environment.

1.2 What is an ecosystem approach to fisheries?

Interest in an ecosystem approach to fisheries (EAF) has been motivated by:

Overall, there is a deeper and broader sense of stewardship in response to increased awareness of the importance of resources and about the current status of fisheries (such as the common occurrence of overfishing, economic waste and adverse impacts on habitat).

In both large- and small-scale fisheries, fishing activities usually affect other components of the ecosystem in which the harvesting is occurring; for example, there is often by-catch of non-targeted species, physical damage to habitats, food-chain effects, or changes to biodiversity. In the context of sustainable development, responsible fisheries management must consider the broader impact of fisheries on the ecosystem as a whole, taking biodiversity into account. The objective is the sustainable use of the whole system, not just a targeted species.

The need for a wider consideration of environmental and ecosystem issues in fisheries has also been acknowledged in many fora, and the principles and aspirations for EAF have been well documented. Although full implementation of agreed principles and aspirations might be difficult at this time, the status quo is not an acceptable option in the light of growing understanding of ecosystems and their uses by society. Progress in implementing EAF is possible, whatever the current approach to managing various types of fisheries. This document elaborates the benefits of EAF and provides practical guidelines for making the changes necessary for an ecosystem approach to marine capture fisheries.

In theory, all aspects of responsible fisheries, as outlined in the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, can be addressed through EAF. However, the focus of these guidelines is on fisheries management (Article 7) with some coverage of research (Article 11), integration of fisheries into coastal area management (Article 10) and special requirements of developing countries (Article 5). The need to prevent pollution from fishing activities and the impact of polluters on fishing is also included, but was not fully elaborated.

The purpose of EAF can be inferred from many international instruments, reports and scientific publications (see discussion of principles and concepts, below). Generally speaking, the purpose of an ecosystem approach to fisheries is to plan, develop and manage fisheries in a manner that addresses the multiple needs and desires of societies, without jeopardizing the options for future generations to benefit from the full range of goods and services provided by marine ecosystems.

To fulfil this purpose, an EAF should address components of ecosystems within a geographic area in a more holistic manner than is used in the current TROM approach. Doing so will require identifying exploited ecosystems (in their geographic context); their complex nature must be recognized and addressed. An EAF also requires the recognition of many (sometimes competing) societal interests in fisheries and marine ecosystems. Accordingly, this definition follows: an ecosystem approach to fisheries (EAF) strives to balance diverse societal objectives, by taking account of the knowledge and uncertainties of biotic, abiotic and human components of ecosystems and their interactions and applying an integrated approach to fisheries within ecologically meaningful boundaries.

EAF is neither inconsistent with, nor a replacement for, current fisheries management approaches (e.g. as described in the FM Guidelines). Rigorously applying TROM approaches (with appropriate emphasis on the precautionary approach and rights-based allocation) would begin to help solve some of the current fisheries problems. Such action in the past could have prevented a large number of present ecosystem problems. Thus, in practice, EAF in the foreseeable future is likely to be developed as an incremental extension of current fisheries management practices.

1.2.1 Principles and concepts

EAF addresses a number of concepts, sometimes referred to as “principles” that have been expressed in various instruments and conventions, and in particular in the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries. These principles generally underpin the high-level policy goals assigned to fishery management at a national or regional scale. In brief (see Annex 2 for more details), recognizing that fisheries have the potential to alter the structure, biodiversity and productivity of marine ecosystems, and that natural resources should not be allowed to decrease below their level of maximum productivity, fisheries management under EAF should respect the following principles:

1.3 Making EAF operational

There is considerable agreement on the underlying principles of EAF, and on their implications for policy. There is also consensus among academics, scientists, fishery advisers and many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on the essential elements of an ecosystem approach to fisheries. However, to implement EAF it is necessary to translate the principles into operational objectives and action (see Box 1).

Translation of principles into high-level policy goals is relatively simple in terms of wording and definitions. Policy goals will usually reflect the overarching principles outlined in relevant domestic legislation, regional agreements and international agreements of various kinds (see Annexes 1 and 2). There should also be some societal agreement on the degree to which it is acceptable for fisheries and other users to alter these “characteristics”.

Translation of policy into action is more important, but it is probably the most difficult step in the implementation of principles. At the outset, all stakeholders must recognize the existence of a hierarchy of issues[3] together with related objectives, indicators and performance measures. Without this recognition, EAF will simply remain an important concept, but will not really be useful in day-to-day fisheries management.

The aim of these guidelines is to translate the high-level policy goals into action by:

Box 1
Making EAF operational

Available international agreements and instruments along with work already undertaken at the national level in some countries reflect a wide consensus on the need for the incorporation of an ecosystem approach to fisheries (EAF). However, to make EAF operational, the principles underpinning this approach need to be “translated” first into policy goals and then into operational objectives that can be achieved by applying manage-ment measures. Without this translation, EAF will remain an important, but largely unachievable, concept.

From principles to policy goals. The principles underpinning EAF cover the full spectrum of economic, social and ecological considerations of sustainable development. Many of the “characteristics” of ecosystems, such as ecosystem health, integrity, resilience, energy flows and the like are relatively abstract concepts that are not fully understood. However, even with our current state of knowledge, higher-level policy goals can be set, such as conserving biodiversity, maintaining fishery habitats, protecting important food chain functioning and so on.

From policy goals to implementation. These higher-level policy goals then need to be broken down into more specific issues, each with its own operational objective that can be achieved by applying a management measure. These need to be at a practical operational level for stocks, habitat, by-catch, protected species, income and social aspirations of the fishers, for example. The chart below shows the step-wise process to be adopted to facilitate implementation (see Chapter 4 for more detail).

Indicators and performance measures for each operational objective provide a framework for monitoring, review and evaluation of the performance of management in achieving both the operational objective, and because of the linkages, the higher-level policy goals.

It is not possible to be prescriptive on these sub-issues because they will obviously vary among fisheries. However, it is important to consider all the economic, social and environmental aspects of fisheries so that an important issue or sub-issue is not overlooked.

Any advice or guidelines then need to take into consideration the differences between developed and developing countries or types of jurisdiction, the availability of handbooks and manuals as well as technical protocols (e.g. to develop indicators), training of scientists and managers, etc. The process elaborated in Chapter 4, if applied in the context of the relevant country or jurisdiction, will provide a method for implementing EAF.

1.4 Moving towards EAF management

In this section, the topics covered in the FM Guidelines are considered sequentially in terms of the limitations of current fisheries management practice (referred to hereafter as current management practice)[4] and what would be required to fully implement EAF, noting that current management practice frequently falls short of TROM requirements and paradigms. As applied in the FM Guidelines, it is useful to categorize the different aspects of EAF into (i) the fisheries management process, (ii) the biological and environmental concepts and constraints, (iii) technological considerations, (iv) the social and economic dimensions, (v) institutional concepts and functions, (vi) time scales in the fisheries management process and (vii) the precautionary approach. Based on the increased emphasis of the importance of fish and fisheries to developing countries, a further category, (viii) special requirements of developing countries, has been added.

The main limitation of most current fisheries management is that it fails to effectively take into account the interactions that occur between fisheries and ecosystems and the fact that both are affected by natural long-term variability as well as non-fishery extractive and polluting activities.

1.4.1 The fisheries management process

The current fisheries management practice of planning, setting objectives, implementing strategies and measures to meet the objectives, as well as monitoring and assessing performance, if conducted to a satisfactory standard, will still provide a sound basis for implementing EAF. However, recognizing the broader economic and social interests of stakeholders under EAF, the setting of economic and social objectives will need a broader consideration of ecological values and constraints than is currently the case. This will require a broader stakeholder base, increased participation and improved linkages of fisheries management with coastal/ocean planning and integrated coastal zone management activities (see Chapter 4).

1.4.2 Biological and environmental concepts and constraints

Marine capture fisheries affect the environment directly (e.g. removal of target and non-target species, habitat change) and indirectly (e.g. changing biological interactions). Similarly, changes in the environment (e.g. climate, agricultural practices and pollution) affect fisheries.

TROM is based on the paradigm that the productivity of marine systems and the level of harvest for any target are limited. It may refer to non-target species, associated and dependent species but, in general, it does not sufficiently recognize the potential direct and indirect effects of fishing on the dynamics of the ecosystem, the conditions under which its productivity can be maintained and the existence of other societal values and uses. TROM is often based on a management unit (e.g. species, gear and jurisdiction) that takes little account of the ecosystem structure or boundaries in which it is operating.

EAF is based on the same “paradigm of limits” as TROM. It recognizes that our ability to predict ecosystem behaviour is inadequate, and accepts that all ecosystems have limits that, when exceeded, can result in major ecosystem change – possibly irreversibly. Maintaining biological diversity is regarded as being of major importance to ecosystem functioning and productive fisheries, as well as providing flexibility for future uses. Current management practices tend to give insufficient recognition to the fact that many components are intrinsically linked in the system in a complex flow of material, energy and information.

There have been many attempts to define an ecosystem. A fundamental principle is that ecosystems are one in a hierarchy of biological organizations in which the integrated whole is more than the sum of the parts (e.g. cells, organisms, ecosystems and biosphere) and are comprised of both living plants and animals (including man) as well as non-living or abiotic structures. They can be defined at many scales, for example from a boulder on a reef to an entire ocean. They can, therefore, overlap or be nested together. Ecosystems are usually spatially defined (i.e. they are sufficiently different from adjacent areas to be recognized as a functional unit) but most of them have no fixed boundaries, especially within the marine environment, and they exchange matter and information with neighbouring ecosystems. However to be able to implement EAF at an operational level, delineation of the “boundaries” is required and can be achieved by a sensible consensus based on proposed EAF objectives (see 4.1).

1.4.3 Technological considerations

EAF seeks to build on conventional fishery management measures to regulate fishing mortality through the use of input controls, output controls and technical measures (including spatial measures) by broadening the approaches to include other measures such as modifying populations by restocking or culling, where appropriate and effective. Similarly, habitat restoration and MPAs will need to be considered both in the context of facilitating fishing activity or enhancing the populations of target species as well as protecting biodiversity and providing broader benefits to the system as a whole (see Chapter 3).

Gear modifications, such as those used to selectively harvest the target species and minimize unwanted by-catch, including protected species, for example turtle exclusion devices (TEDs) and by-catch reduction devices (BRDs), will take on increasing importance as ecological objectives are broadened within the context of EAF. The impact of some fishing gear and methods on the bottom habitat (biotic and abiotic) can often have a negative effect on the ecosystem. There is limited knowledge about this impact, however, and more research is required to examine the extent of the impact of various gear. For gear known to produce serious impacts, the introduction of restrictions may be necessary and, where possible, new technologies that mitigate any negative impact will need to be developed.

Fishing operations may also cause other negative impacts to the environment, such as continued fishing by lost gear (“ghost fishing”), emission of exhaust gas with dangerous substances to the atmosphere and pollution from oily waste, litter and fish waste. Minimizing such impacts will require development and successful introduction of alternative cost-effective technologies and fishing practices.

Many ecosystems, especially those in coastal waters, are impacted not only by fisheries, but also by other users, including upstream land-based activities. In these cases, many of the broader measures will be the responsibility of other agencies. Fisheries managers will need to take a proactive approach so that the appropriate authorities recognize fisheries as an important stakeholder in these ecosystems.

1.4.4 Social and economic dimensions

Current fisheries management often focuses on a limited set of societal goals and objectives for achieving economic and social benefits from fishing. However, as the overarching goal of EAF is to implement sustainable development, the shift to EAF will entail the recognition of the wider economic, social and cultural benefits that can be derived from fisheries resources and the ecosystems in which they occur. The identification of the various direct and indirect uses and users of these resources and ecosystems is a necessary first step to attain a good understanding of the full range of potential benefits. While many of these benefits may be amenable to quantitative assessments, some are not, and their value can be described only in qualitative terms. Multi-criteria decision-making techniques may be applied to create aggregate indices that encapsulate both quantitative and qualitative ecological, economic, social and cultural considerations.

The quantitative valuation of marine ecosystem goods and services can be based on the concept of total economic value (i.e. use and non-use value). Many ecosystem goods and services are not traded, and therefore need to be valued through means other than market prices. While various approaches have been developed to undertake such valuations (see Annex 3), they pose particular difficulties in the measurement of non-use values, especially current or future (potential) values associated with resources which rely merely on continued existence of the resource and are unrelated to use (e.g. conservation of some endangered species). The relative weights given to use and non-use values by different groups, not just within countries but also between countries, can give rise to diverging views on whether specific fishing practices should be modified or cease entirely.

The consideration of a broader range of ecosystem goods and services necessarily implies the need of addressing a wider range of trade-offs between different uses, non-uses, and user groups. In view of the higher complexity of EAF and limited ability to predict changes in the future flow of ecosystem goods and services, valuation has to take uncertainties and risks explicitly into account.

Ecosystem considerations have been part of the fishery perspective of many traditional fishing communities for long periods in different parts of the world. Nevertheless, overcapacity, overfishing and destructive practices have also occurred in many small-scale fisheries. EAF provides a framework within which traditional fisheries management practices can be recognized and strengthened to address some of these problems. EAF is better suited than TROM to handle impacts arising from destructive fishing practices, habitat degradation and pollution, and to use traditional ecological knowledge about fish and their habitats. EAF must, however, take into account the dependence of artisanal and small-scale fishing communities on fishing for their life, livelihoods and food security.

1.4.5 Institutional concepts and functions

One of the implications of implementing EAF is an expansion of stakeholder groups and sectoral linkages. This may have substantial impact on institutional structure and process, in terms either of creating new structures or strengthening existing institutional collaboration. Division of responsibilities within governments and differing priorities among different economic sectors are impediments to be overcome in order to implement an ecosystem approach to fisheries. An effective ecosystem approach will depend on better institutional coordination (e.g. between ministries). This will require clarification of roles and responsibilities, improved coordination and integration across government and other users and more accountability across all stakeholder groups. A greater emphasis on planning at a range of geographical levels that involves all relevant stakeholders will be required and will involve a much more collaborative approach and sharing of information. The magnitude of this task should not be underestimated, and a global acceptance of the benefits of this approach is needed for it to succeed.

In many cases, fisheries are currently managed by an agency with narrow legislation and objectives pertaining to the harvesting of only the target species without due regard to other uses/users in the area of the fishery or its impact on the ecosystem. Many laws and regulations may need to be changed to incorporate EAF. Management units may need to be redefined geographically or, at the very least, coordinated within a larger-scale planning process. This will be particularly important where natural and operational boundaries straddle jurisdictions and management plans, and where the indirect effects of fisheries are manifested elsewhere.

In most countries, EAF will require considerable capacity building. This will include improving understanding of ecosystem structures and functions; training managers and regulators to deal with a broader range of options and trade-offs, conflicts, rights and regulations; and enhancing stakeholder capacity to participate. This may be achieved, at least in part, by mobilizing and linking with existing institutions.

1.4.6 Time scales

The FM Guidelines recognize three time scales of immediate relevance to the fisheries management process – a policy cycle of about 5 years, a fishery management planning and strategy cycle of 3–5 years and a shorter cycle of management implementation and review at an operational level, usually occurring annually. These will also apply to EAF, although the coordination necessary to achieve EAF may mean that progress is slower in some more complicated areas. Longer time scales will need to be considered when dealing with issues such as climate change or the well-being of future fisheries generations.

1.4.7 Precautionary approach

Under EAF, the precautionary approach gains even greater significance, because it is expected that uncertainty will be much greater than under TROM. Application of the principle specified in the FAO Technical guidelines on the precautionary approach to capture fisheries and species introductions that “where there are threats of serious irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation”[5] should result in conservative management action being taken until more is known about ecosystem structures and functions. Under EAF, as outlined in the above-mentioned publication, the principle is much broader than just environmental degradation, and applies to any undesirable outcome (ecological, social or economic); it should also be applied in all stages of the management process.

1.4.8 Special requirements of developing countries

The challenge to implement improved fisheries management is stretching national systems and capacity in most countries, and especially in the developing world. Implementing EAF could add a significant additional burden, and the challenge may be particularly formidable in small-scale fisheries, where the difficulty and costs of the transition to effective management may outweigh the available capacity and short-term economic benefits derived from it. Particular problems are likely to be encountered in regions where poverty is widespread, alternatives to fishing are scarce or non-existent, and where the traditional systems have broken down. In such situations, the short-term economic necessities, at both national and local levels, may be too overwhelming for serious consideration of change even when the long-term benefits are apparent.

The particular problems being faced by developing countries in implementing the Code of Conduct and EAF, and the role of the international community in assisting them, have already been recognized in major international instruments. In particular, Article 5 of the Code of Conduct, Special Requirements of Developing Countries, states:

In order to achieve the objectives of this Code and to support its effective implementation, countries, relevant international organizations, whether governmental or non-governmental, and financial institutions should give full recognition to the special circumstances and requirements of developing countries, including in particular the least-developed among them, and small island developing countries... especially in the areas of financial and technical assistance, technology transfer, training and scientific cooperation and in enhancing their ability to develop their own fisheries as well as to participate in high seas fisheries, including access to such fisheries (para. 5.2).

Paragraph 30c of the Plan of Implementation of the World Summit on Sustainable Development drew attention to Article 5 of the Code of Conduct, and the 2001 Reykjavik Declaration affirmed:

Our determination to strengthen international cooperation with the aim of supporting developing countries in incorporating ecosystem considerations into fisheries management, in particular in building their expertise through education and training for collecting and processing the biological, oceanographic, ecological and fisheries data needed for designing, implementing and upgrading management strategies.

Greater attention needs to be given to fulfilling these requirements if the developing countries as a whole are to be able to make progress in implementing the growing number of agreements and instruments aimed at fisheries and fishery resources, as these countries simultaneously struggle with pressing fundamental socio-economic issues such as food security, health and access to other basic necessities.

To mobilize more national resources, every opportunity should be taken to raise awareness and facilitate the use of EAF in all relevant cases. To justify using public financial resources, the many benefits that can be derived from the approach, not just those for the fishery sector, need to be highlighted. Emphasis also has to be placed on the existence of potentially high returns from improved management in order to mobilize support from international financial institutions.

The following issues are will need to be addressed to assist the implementation of EAF in developing countries:

[1] “Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”, Brundtland Report, Our common future, World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987.
[2] Report of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, Johannesburg, South Africa, 26 August–4 September 2002, Chapter 1.2, Plan of implementation of the WSSD (
[3] Issues are referred to as “criteria” in the FAO Guidelines on the development of indicators for sustainable development of marine capture fisheries. FAO Fisheries Resources Division, Indicators for sustainable development of marine capture fisheries, FAO Technical Guidelines for Responsible Fisheries, No. 8, 1999, 73 pp.
[4] This acknowledges the wide diversity of current practices, some of which are more advanced towards EAF than others, and of which TROM is a subset.
[5] United Nations Conference on Environment and Development; and elaborated further in a fishery context in The precautionary approach to capture fisheries and species introductions, FAO Technical Guidelines for Responsible Fisheries, No. 2.

Previous Page Top of Page Next Page